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Humble 'hood, proud of its past

Once a streetcar suburb, Montavilla's packed with history

'If you build it, they will come' is true not only in baseball.

With the completion of the Morrison Bridge in 1887, the arable land east of the Willamette River was rapidly platted. The community of Mount Tabor Villa sprang forth two years later on the sprawling acreage that today is bounded by Interstate 84, Southeast Division Street and Interstate 205, with a western border that runs along 67th Avenue to Burnside Street, where it jogs down to 76th Avenue.

The name did not fall easily off the tongue and in short order was contracted to Montavilla. The community's rapid growth was fueled by the addition of a streetcar line in 1892.

On Saturday, July 8, Li Alligood will lead a walking tour of the area titled 'Montavilla Memories: Walking Though the Past' sponsored by the Architectural Heritage Center.

Alligood, who works for a nonprofit housing developer, has an interest in old buildings and the built environment. She has helped with several walking tours for the center while volunteering for its education committee, and she was excited to research and create her own.

'I'm by no means an expert on Montavilla,' she says. 'A lot of people have this conception of outer Southeast as being a really unattractive, uninteresting place, but I've had a really good time learning about it, and it's got a really fascinating history.'

Peggy Moretti, who handles marketing and business development for the center, says: 'As a part of our ongoing mission, one of the things the Heritage Center does is research into neighborhood history, to capture the stories and histories behind buildings and houses. We meet people in the neighborhoods and get their stories as we develop some of these programs. It's a living, breathing thing.'

The Architectural Heritage Center is the 'public face' of the Bosco-Milligan Foundation - established in 1987 by Jerry Bosco and Ben Milligan to preserve their collection of salvaged architectural artifacts and foster awareness of the importance of preserving a community's character through its buildings.

Many towns created city

Like Sellwood, Woodstock and St. Johns, Montavilla is a good example of early exurban development fed by streetcar lines, says Richard Engeman, public historian at the Oregon Historical Society.

'Now we say these are neighborhoods,' he says, 'but at one time they were small communities of their own. The man of the family may have left for a day job in the city, but these were very coherent communities.

'Unlike Irvington, which starts about the same time, this is a little bit more country living. Like Sellwood, it is a town with its own businesses and school.'

The completion of transcontinental railroads to Portland in 1883 and 1884 ignited a population boom. Suburban growth was further spurred by national economic slumps in 1890 and 1894.

'You've got some land that you think is not doing so great as a farm,' Engeman says. ' 'Maybe we can sell it off as lots.' You throw some more dollars at it and build a railroad line.'

By the early part of the 20th century Montavilla had taken on the trappings of a midsized town, with stores, banks and grocery stores.

Walking through the neighborhood, one notices the preponderance of older homes on corner lots. Such lots tended to sell better in both commercial and residential areas, Engeman says, and in many cases people would buy the adjacent lots as well, not selling them off until years later. Along the streetcar lines, people subdivided farmland to create lots that didn't necessarily sell for years.

After World War II, new homes began to fill in the relatively undeveloped area, resulting in the great number of '40s homes in the neighborhood. Each succeeding decade brought both greater density and new architecture.

'We live in less spacious times,' Engeman says. 'The suburban dream of the early 20th century was not just to have a house of our own, but space for a garden and a cow or two, or chickens. That spaciousness disappears with rising land values.'

Tour guide hits the archives

Alligood, 31, began compiling research for the tour last October, combing city offices for old building permits and the Historic Resource Inventory at the Multnomah County Library to locate buildings that had been deemed historically interesting. She walked the streets identifying characterful Queen Anne and Victorian cottages.

She is anecdotal in her approach. Pointing out a building on Southeast Stark Street, she says: 'That green building on the corner, Kim's Billiards, is from 1911, and when it was opened it was actually a silent movie theater, a nickelodeon. On the second floor was a meeting hall. On the side of the building you can see the windows they had to have open for ventilation. They could only have movies at night because it was so hot. Then during the flu epidemic of 1918, all of the theaters had to close for five weeks. A lot of them didn't make it back.'

The grandest building on Alligood's tour is the former monastery of the Adorers of the Precious Blood, Daughters of Mary Immaculate (7617 S.E. Main St.), built in the early 1920s. Now the St. Andrews Care Center for Alzheimer's patients, the building is on the National Register of Historic Places. Crucifixes with ladders attached form a repeating decorative element on the mission revival-style building.

'From what I understand of the order, they are cloistered so they spend a lot of their time praying and really just trying to be closer to heaven and God,' Alligood says. 'My interpretation is that the ladder represents their path and their goal.'

With the exception of the Academy Theater on Southeast Stark Street, the tour will not enter buildings.

'Montavilla is kind of a humble neighborhood,' Alligood says, summing up its appeal. 'There are a lot of modest but beautiful, buildings. Modest neighborhoods are just as important as fancy ones in describing the growth of a city and how a city expands. Montavilla is still somewhat rural in character. It's a very quiet, green, open neighborhood.'

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